An unlikely heroine

2013-09-08 14:00

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She opened her home to her village’s women and children trying to escape an axe-wielding killer

A village under siege by a merciless and axe-wielding serial killer delivered an unlikely heroine.

Nomfundiso Mpontshane opened her home to 21 single women and their children from her village of Tholeni outside Butterworth, Eastern Cape, all desperate to escape a rampant murderer.

Between July and August last year, Mpontshane kept these rural women safe during the final days of serial killer and rapist Bulelani Mabhayi’s five-year reign of terror.

Mabhayi (39) broke into the homes of single women while they slept with their children and grandchildren, then raped and butchered them.

In one home, he killed a woman and four of her grandchildren and children. In another, he killed a woman and two of her children before setting them alight.

Mabhayi was sentenced on Tuesday to 25 life sentences. He killed 20 women and children in all – his youngest victim was 13 months old; his eldest, a 79-year-old woman who was related to him.

Mabhayi’s sentencing by acting Judge Noluthando Conjwa at a special sitting of the Mthatha High Court in Butterworth followed his confession and guilty plea to 36 charges, including housebreaking, rape and murder.

While relief has come to the people of Tholeni, 30km from Butterworth, his reign of terror left its women scarred for life.

“We cannot trust men at all now. Though it is great that Mabhayi is behind bars, we are still living in fear. We don’t know if he was working alone or if he had help,” said Mpontshane.

Nomfundiso Mpontshane is a Tholeni heroine who opened her house to terrified single women with their children in her village outside Butterworth in Eastern Cape. Convicted serial killer Bulelani Mabhayi terrorised women and children there for five years by raping them and killing them using either an axe or a bush knife. He was sentenced this week to 25 life sentences. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24

“We are still scared. We lock ourselves indoors all the time. When you hear a door making noise, you pray it is not an intruder. That man has damaged this village, our lives will never be the same again.”

In the living room of the house she shared with her neighbours during Mabhayi’s killing spree, Mpontshane spoke of how they took turns to sleep while others kept watch.

“Someone had to be awake all the time. Everybody was scared. By this time, 19 people had been killed and nobody knew who was responsible. Every night we thought was our last,” she said.

Mpontshane, a widowed mother of two, said they could not trust any of the village men. She then suggested that all the single women in the area come and stay with her.

Every night, village women, young and old, would go to her house with their children, sleeping on mattresses on the floor in her lounge and bedroom. The next morning, they returned to their homes and prepared their children for school.

Mabhayi preferred to strike on Sundays and when it was windy. Mpontshane knew all the victims – all except one were neighbours from Tholeni.

“Whenever it became windy everybody would be scared because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Mpontshane says that in protecting the single village women, she saved herself from Mabhayi’s axe.

“I don’t think he liked me that much. He would give me this bad look at times. He was such a frightening person. But no one ever thought it was him killing people. He was so quiet and distant,” she said.

“One night, somebody tried to break into my house. I was alone. I could see a shadow outside but could not make out who it was. I called police and they came and the person was gone. It could have been Mabhayi. I also could have been raped and killed.”

For residents of Tholeni, a quiet village with tantalising fresh air and a simple way of life, picking up the pieces is anything but simple.

The scars are still fresh and run deep.

Dlayedwa (“the one who eats alone”), as Mabhayi was known, was a trusted builder, credited for having built almost all the village homes. He worked alone and hired no assistants. Most of his victims were his clients.

Mabhayi’s uncle, Monwabisi Tini, took City Press on a tour of the village, pointing out where the serial killer and his victims lived.

It was now clear, he said, that his nephew used the time he had with his clients to study them.

“During the day he was this builder who had such energy and talent. But at night he was a monster, destroying the very people whose shelter he built,” he said, fighting back tears.

Nomtunzi Lubambo considers herself lucky to be alive. Her brother-in-law’s wife, Nophumzile Lubambo, was not as fortunate.

She was Mabhayi’s last victim, murdered in August 2012.

He was arrested a few days after killing her, when police found shoe prints matching his near Nophumzile’s lifeless, bloodied body.

“I was saved by the burglar door,” she said. “I could see someone had tried to open it but failed. The very same night, Nophumzile was hacked to death.”

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